by Terry Hong
Becoming a bestselling author took Min Jin Lee 11 years—and so much more of her life.
She quit lawyering, but without that income, tuition for an MFA proved impossible. So she found every bargain opportunity in New York City to learn her craft, including readings, workshops, and $200 classes at the 92nd Street Y. Then money became even more scarce when she became responsible for family members facing financial ruin. At home, she had to figure out how to balance new motherhood after a difficult pregnancy; she couldn’t fund childcare to write, but she would weep over missing her young son on the rare occasion she was alone to write. Most importantly, she had to reclaim her health, fighting a serious liver condition she’d had since her teens; her “one in a million” full recovery took decades, but she was finally disease-free by the time she signed her debut contract.
Her tenacity and savvy got Lee to her third novel—publishers rejected her first, she herself rejected her second—which hit shelves in 2007, when Lee was 39. As a lauded international bestseller, Free Food for Millionaires—about the daughter of struggling Korean immigrants who invents herself anew but struggles to make genuine connections—would make Lee a (not-quite) overnight sensation.
A decade later, Lee’s follow-up, Pachinko, published in February, gives us an exquisite, haunting epic that crosses almost a century, three countries, and four generations of an ethnic Korean family that cannot even claim a single shared name because, as the opening line declares: “History has failed us.”
In 1910, Japan annexes Korea, usurping the country with intentions to erase the Korean identity. Amid the tragedies that follow, a fisherman and his wife survive amidst near-impossible circumstances on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Their beloved daughter, who eventually marries a gentle minister while pregnant with another man’s child, initiates the migration to Japan to join her husband’s older brother and wife. Their extended family will always live as second-class immigrants; no level of achievement, integrity, or grit changes their status as reviled foreigners. Two Japanese-born sons choose diverging paths; one grandson hazards a second immigration to the other side of the world.
Although characters are oppressed by the traditional Japanese belief sho ga nai (it can’t be helped), “moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too,” illuminate the narrative, Lee writes. Her profound second novel of losses and gains explored through the social and cultural milieu of pachinko parlors is shaped by impeccable research, meticulous plotting, and empathic perception.
Terry Hong: Like so many lauded authors, you lawyered first. Marjorie Liu, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, and of course John Grisham, to name a few. What are the roots of your own law-to-letter transition?
Min Jin Lee: I quit being a lawyer in 1995 only after practicing for two years. I had a very serious liver disease, diagnosed when I was in high school, which made me vulnerable to fatigue and greater possibility for a fatal illness. I think illness has always clarified for me how to spend my time. I preferred writing, and, insanely, I thought that writing a novel would not be so difficult. Ahem.
TH: That ‘ahem’ certainly leads right into what you call your 11-year apprenticeship, which produced your bestselling debut, Free Food for Millionaires. In what specific ways did illness and recovery affect your writing process?
MJL: I am pretty sure that if I hadn’t been a very ill person, I wouldn’t have had the courage, especially with my very modest immigrant background, to choose writing as a profession. Also, if someone had told me that it would take 11 years to publish a novel, I would have done something more pragmatic, requiring less exertion. Isn’t that lame? But true.
TH: You’ve written about all the learning-to-write-well opportunities during your ‘apprenticeship’ that were available to you as a New Yorker. If your address during those years had been on the other coast—say LA—do you think you would have been a different writer?
MJL: Well, yes, I think it helped enormously that I was able to study with such great, great writers for very little money [in NYC]. However, I did also read a lot of writing books, too. I could probably recommend about 15 writing books I adore: Lajos Egri, John Gardner, and Anne Lamott [for example], write beautifully about craft and perseverance. As for classes, I have noticed that a lot of my gorgeous friends in LA will break for distant yoga, pilates, boxing, etc., which might require more money and time than a writing class. Also, it is possible to meet great writers (not necessarily established) and form writing communities, and I did that for many years.
TH: Have you kept those writing communities going since becoming a two-for-two bestselling author?
MJL: I am still very close friends with my writer friends, but I don’t have that many. Also, my friends and classmates with whom I started over 20 years ago ended up doing really well: Sharon Pomerantz wrote Rich Boy, which won the National Jewish Book Award; Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal; and my dear friend Wendy Lamb has her own imprint at Random House for YA books. These are women I met in a 92nd Street Y class, which I think we paid $200 for a semester, and none of us were “established” then. However, every one of these women were heart-attack serious about books and craft.
TH: I’ve read about how you kept those “marble” notebooks in which you recorded memorable passages. Do you still have them? Add to them?
MJL: I do have marble notebooks, and I continually write down passages I admire. There are so many great writers to read and admire. I have this benefit of not knowing that many writers personally, so I feel free from any bias. I go out of my way not to listen to weird stories about writers, because I want the purity of their work.
TH: Given your self-described “shyness,” how are you planning for your peripatetic adventures ahead? Your book tour is crazy extensive!
MJL: I’m scared out of my head. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I can’t believe that this tour is the way it is. However, I know I am very very very fortunate to get a tour, so I will go and I will do what all good girls do. I will show up, and I will try not to embarrass my publisher, my agent, my family, my ancestors, my race … etc. You might think I am kidding, but the truth is that I really worry about how we are perceived, and by we, I mean, women over a certain age (I’m 48), Asian American women writers, Asian American writers of both sexes, progressives, Presbyterians, Koreans, immigrants, Korean Americans, Korean Japanese, etc. I worry and I shouldn’t worry but because there are so few who are getting good chances, I want to do well, and it sounds horribly grandiose, but I fear that if my book does not do well, somehow, I have let all these really kind people down. I would hate that. But, now you know so much of my neuroses.
TH: Holy moly, that’s a lot of baggage to be carrying around! I predict you’re gonna be a nasty woman in a pantsuit and slay them all!
MJL: You are a very kind soul. Thank you. Baggage is my middle name.
TH: Having left Korea at such a young age—your family immigrated when you were 7, yes?—in your daily life, how connected do you feel to Korea? Do you use your writing to ‘go back’?
MJL: I feel profoundly connected to Korea. My father was born in Wonsan, now in North Korea, and my mother was born in Busan, now in South Korea, and I add the word “now” because when they were young, there was only one Korea. I was born in Seoul, and I recall it very vividly. I admire Koreans and what Koreans have withstood as a people, and it is a culture of 5,000 years plus. I studied American history in college, and I love being an American, and I am proud to be an American, especially now, because I see the resistance in this country and the ability for dialogue, and it strengthens me. I think my connectedness to Korea is not just historical … it is necessary to feel a greater sense of strength when I feel lost in this country.
TH: Beyond the Korean/Japanese history, you also have multiple levels of immigration woven into Pachinko—from north to south, Korea to Japan, Japan to the US. Given the alarming changes happening since the presidential transition, your book is even more timely. What do you hope will linger with your readers once they finish?
MJL: I want my readers to see people like the people in my book as fully human, connected with history, persecution, and culture. I also want my readers to see that we were always here. What I found so moving was to know that it didn’t matter what the record said, because the record we have of history is incomplete. I think the record has to grow, and more voices have to witness. I do this in fiction, and it is a weird and odd thing, but I want the stories of very ordinary, unimportant people to reflect the beauty and courage of a larger community.
TH: Speaking of history—somehow, miraculously, gorgeously, you succeeded in weaving the contentious 20th-century history between Korea and Japan into Pachinko. I assume living in Japan (from 2007 to 2011) provided both inspiration and information. What took you to Japan? Did you have Pachinko’s narrative already in mind before the move? How did you do the research?
MJL: First, thank you for your kind remarks about the book. I say this, because the hardest part for me was to get the history right without hurting the narrative. Second, I got the idea for the book in 1989. I started writing it before I wrote Free Food for Millionaires. I had a complete draft of it before I moved to Japan in 2007 (five months after Free Food came out) because my husband got a better job in Tokyo. I had written that prior manuscript based on written research. I read perhaps three to four dozen academic texts on the Korean Japanese (also referred to as zainichi); however, the manuscript then was really not great.
After I moved to Japan, I interviewed dozens upon dozens of Korean Japanese. I was interested in what ordinary people do when those who are in charge are out to lunch. And when [those] leaders and elites are out to lunch and they make shit decisions, what do ordinary people do? They look for water, shelter, food, and they watch out for their families. People do everything possible to fight unfairness. Then I realized that the history didn’t show that, and I wanted very much to fix this. So I wrote a whole new manuscript and it became eight decades, rather than my initial three.
TH: Given that contentious century since the annexation of Korea by Japan, how was living in Japan as a Korean American?
MJL: I was very privileged because my husband’s company gave us expatriate housing and schooling for our son. Living in Tokyo was not difficult in a material way whatsoever. However, there were so many instances where I was forcefully reminded that Koreans were like this or like that, and the ones who were saying this were not just the native Japanese. I heard this insane bullshit from lots of people from all walks of life who had been around the study of Japan for many decades. It was as if the Japan experts had learned stereotypes and felt it was okay to repeat them. I cannot imagine making such generalizations about the Japanese or Koreans or Martians, but hearing people I like say really horrid things about Koreans was hard to take.
TH: Our parents are of the generation that lived through the Japanese occupation, and I know some families still have lingering distrust and fear. Your husband is half Japanese … did that ever cause friction in your family?
MJL: My mother-in-law who is deceased now came from a very prominent family in Japan. Her father was a count before the peerage was abolished after the war. Needless to say, I think everyone was surprised when I showed up to dinner. That said, my husband is an American who grew up everywhere. Our son is one-quarter Japanese and half Korean. I would never make stereotypes of the Japanese, not just because it is wrong, but because I know a more accurate history as well as the people. I find that most racism, xenophobia, and irrational hatred disappear with greater intimacy.
TH: Have members of your family read Pachinko? I’m sure painful memories must loom in there for the oldsters?
MJL: Yes. Everyone in my family has read it. They were really surprised by the history in the fiction. My mother kept asking how did I know certain stuff? And my father, who lived through the colonial era and speaks fluent Japanese as a consequence, was astonished by the details, which I have to say here, were very hard-won. Normally, I don’t pat myself on the back too much, but figuring stuff out like the price of a boardinghouse or the lack of shoe polish during the war took more time than reading a whole history book.
TH: Might the book have Korean and Japanese translations in the near future? Would be a fabulous tool for diplomacy!
MJL: [It has] sold to countries like Poland and Turkey. But Japan has yet to make an offer. I received one offer from Korea, but I don’t know what I will do yet.
TH: Speaking of foreign … one of your Pachinko characters makes the journey from East to West. Might that be roots for a sequel?
MJL: Not sure. Right now, I am sketching out the third book on Korea, which will complete my trilogy of sorts, and it is called American Hagwon. Free Food for Millionaires is about Koreans in America, Pachinko is about Koreans in Japan, and in American Hagwon, I will focus on the centrality and the idolatry of education for Koreans around the world. The book will be about a Korean American woman who owns a hagwon (cram school) in Manhattan for the very rich and powerful. I hope it doesn’t take 11 years (Free Food) or 28 years (Pachinko). That said, I have fewer censors than I used to have, which is helpful. I’m not a blocked writer, I am a bashful writer.
TH: And short stories—that’s what you published before your novels. Will we see a collection someday?
MJL: I have a full collection of stories and a personal collection of essays (about feminism, literature, art, etc.), but the powers-that-be have asked me to hold off [until after] Pachinko. I really love my stories and essays, because I feel like I earned them, but the marketplace is different for such things. For now, I do not know of a Korean American woman who has written a collection of essays, and I think that’s too bad, because even if it is not me, I think we need more Asian American perspectives in a non-fiction format.
TH: Your publishers are very smart—I bet they’re expecting you’ll repeat Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenon: Pulitzer first with a novel, and then bring out essays and short stories and make them bestsellers, too!
MJL: Well, from your mouth to God’s ears. I do feel pressure to sell well, and that’s a different pressure than to write well. As I get rid of neuroses like censors or (some) perfectionism, I get new ones like ‘will I sell enough copies to warrant the next book?’ We live in big-data/meta-data world now, and everyone knows ‘how we’re doing’ in a way. Scary.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.